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How Is an STD Test Performed?

By Bridget Coila ; Updated August 14, 2017

An STD test, or sexually transmitted disease test, may be performed for one or more of the many diseases that can be contracted through contact with bodily fluids during sexual activity. There are many tests, each of which is specific for a particular STD.


The most widely known STD test is the test for HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, the virus that leads to AIDS. The viral STDs herpes simplex virus types 1 and 2, hepatitis A and B and human papilloma virus can also be detected through STD testing. Bacterial STDs that may be included in an STD testing series include chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea.


Testing for HIV, herpes and syphilis can be done through a blood test. The tests for gonorrhea and chlamydia use either a urine sample or a swab taken from the cervix of women or the inside of the penis in men. Herpes and syphilis can also be tested using a swab from an open genital sore during a suspected active outbreak. The collected sample is sent to a laboratory and the results returned in a few days or weeks. Results are typically confidential and can be picked up at the testing center, mailed to the individual's home or available by phone or Internet using an anonymous personal identification number given to the person at the time of screening.


In some cases, the timing of the STD test is important, since a test done soon after infection may result in a false-negative result. Tests for HIV, for example, may give a false-negative result if done within the first three to six months of having the virus because the antibodies in the blood have not risen to a detectable level until that time. According to the CDC, 97 percent of HIV-infected individuals have detectable levels of antibodies by three months after infection, so retesting is recommended for anyone who received a negative result within the first three months after suspected exposure.


Many people get tested for STDs when starting a relationship with a new partner to assure each other that they are free of sexually transmitted diseases. Some individuals get tested when they display symptoms of an STD or after having unprotected sex during which they may have been exposed to an STD. Others simply wish to keep track of their STD status for their own peace of mind. Pregnant women are often tested for STDs during an early prenatal visit to receive treatment before the delivery. In some states, a test for HIV and other STDs is required to get a marriage license.


Different doctors or clinics may not all test for the same STDs, so individuals should ask which tests are given at a specific location. An STD test is not usually done during routine gynecological exams or Pap smears. The individual has to specifically ask for the test or give specific permission for it to be done. Home-testing kits are available for some STDs, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, but these are more prone to inaccurate results than tests done in a clinic or doctor's office.

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